KALAMAZOO, Mich. – Defensive backs coach Daryl Dixon's challenge was directed at Sean Baker, but it could have gone to the entire Ball State University football team.
Baker had let an interception slip through his hands as Ball State attempted to close out their 22-17 upset of Western Michigan University on Wednesday night. From the press box high above Waldo Stadium, Dixon issued his directive at the safety.
"How about you be a finisher?"
Baker and the Cardinals weren't about to let another close game slip through their fingers. With 22 seconds left, the sophomore latched onto his second interception of the night and held on, clinching Ball State's second victory of the year.
"We played with heart," Baker said. "We played for our seniors, because they deserve nothing less than a win like that. We just fought for our seniors."
Baker's interception only mattered because of Charlie Todd's 87-yard punt return for the game-winning touchdown. With 7:27 remaining in the game, Todd streaked through the heavy rain at Waldo Stadium to give the Cardinals the lead back.
Todd said he waited all year for his shot at a home run.
"The first time they did the same thing, they all got sucked in," Todd said. "I saw they had the blocking. After that, my job was easy; all I had to do was run."
Todd's touchdown was Ball State's first punt return for a touchdown since B.J. Hill broke one at the University of Akron in 2005. It reenergized the Cardinals, who had been sagging since MiQuale Lewis' three-yard touchdown run at the start of the second quarter.
"We really got off to a good start on offense, but once we ran through everything they stopped us," coach Stan Parrish said. "We didn't really do anything until right at the end with [Cory] Sykes and MiQuale with some great effort runs."
Ball State gained 226 yards against Western Michigan and only 65 of those came after halftime. Parrish said he was forced to abandon the wildcat formation in the second half because of the wet weather.
"I didn't want to pull out the wildcat with the weather and the rain late in the game," Parrish said. "I didn't want to take a chance of something happening there."
Making up for the Cardinals' offensive deficiencies was the play of their defense. Ball State forced five turnovers from quarterback Tim Hiller. The senior threw four interceptions and fumbled in his final collegiate game.
Baker had two picks and freshmen Travis Freeman and Jason Pinkston each had one. Freeman said he was just in the right play at the right time.
"It kind of landed in my hands to be honest with you," he said. "Coach [Deion] Melvin told me ‘Play it. It'll come your way.' And it came my way."
The Cardinals were also able to overcome a pair of injuries on defense in the second half. Linebacker Davyd Jones left the game late in the first half with what Parrish called a tweaked knee. Jones was seen on the sideline in the second half in street clothes and on crutches.
Parrish also said Pinkston suffered from cramps late in the fourth quarter, forcing Armand Dehaney into action on the final series.
The victory closed an otherwise disappointing season for Ball State. Ball State's 10 losses are the second most in school history, ahead of only a 0-11 record in 1999. The Cardinals are pleased to enter the offseason with a win for the first time in three years.
"Nothing else matters now," Baker said. "We've got the ball rolling now. We sent a message ‘We might have been 2-10 this year, but we showed everybody we're going to come out next year ready to play."